“Last year,” says Irvine Welsh, the bestselling Scottish author, “was the year of misery for everyone. Obviously it started terribly with Bowie’s death. And we had Trump and Brexit.
“But for me,” he pauses, before bringing The Big Issue back from the abyss, “it was absolutely fantastic.”
For Welsh, his euphoric outlook can be boiled down to one spring weekend in Glasgow last year.
On May 21, Welsh and his oldest mates witnessed something that will live on forever for one half of Edinburgh, as his beloved Hibs FC won a historic Scottish Cup courtesy of a dramatic injury time winner at Hampden Park. Bedlam, quite understandably, ensued.
“114 years since we last won it,” Welsh says, still beaming.
The previous night across the city, the 59-year-old reprised his cameo role as drug dealer Mikey Forrester (pictured) in T2 Trainspotting, the long-awaited sequel to Danny Boyle’s 1996 adaptation of the 1993 debut novel that brought Welsh fame and fortune. “I still can’t get over it,” he laughs. “It was one of those ‘if Carlsberg did weekends’, you know? I was shooting my scene on the Friday, then meeting all the boys off the train the next morning. The next day I went to Ibiza for this 30 years of acid house thing. It was like everything had coalesced together over that weekend in a mad way.”
We’ve never been shy to highlight The Big Issue’s contribution to bringing the Trainspotting follow-up to life. Indeed, Welsh points to the autumn of 2013, when he wrote He Ain’t Lager, a new short story penned exclusively for this magazine (below) about one of his most memorable characters, Trainspotting’s unpredictable violent psychopath Francis Begbie. It was, he says, crucial in setting the wheels in motion. “I always associate Christmas with psychopaths,” explains Welsh. “Then when you got in touch, I decided it was time to update Begbie. I thought, what if he was the calmest person in the room? Then I began to think, what would make him this way?
“I was spending time with Danny and John [Hodge, who wrote the Trainspotting screenplay] and it set me off on the path of thinking about these characters again.”
After this initial reprise generated a rapturous response, Welsh announced Begbie was getting his own novel, The Blade Artist. “I didn’t really think anything would happen with it but I got interested again and began to think, what if he’s not this reformed guy, he’s just faking it? What if he’s just become more cold-blooded and he’s still a killer?”
Around the same time, Welsh, Boyle, Hodge and Trainspotting producers Andrew Macdonald and Christian Colson got together to flesh out two decades’ worth of notes and ideas for T2. Finally, it was reality. “Being back in there with these characters again, it was very interesting,” Welsh recalls.
Coming out of nowhere, at the height of Britpop in 1996, the film adaptation — starring Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and Kelly Macdonald — was the defining British film of its era. It saw Boyle dubbed the “British Tarantino”, transformed Welsh into a household name and catapulted its stars to Hollywood. A sequel, loosely based on Welsh’s 2002 book Porno, struggled to get off the ground for more than a decade, beset by various spats that included McGregor, who played central character Renton, and Boyle at odds.
The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.
“Obviously people had fallen out with one another and had their differences, which has been patched up now,” says Welsh. “But far more significant is that everybody has been so busy. It had to be the same creative team, the same actors. Once you decide on that, it becomes difficult, as you need to get everyone to say yes at the same time. To sync up these people, with the best will in the world, becomes very hard. The logistics operate against you.
“No one wants to trash the legacy and there was a bit of trepidation,” adds Welsh. “We had to find something that wasn’t going to make people think we were in search of a quick buck.”
Trainspotting was fundamental to so many people’s culture growing up
They certainly could not be accused of rushing it. In the intervening two decades, three of Welsh’s other books hit the big screen: The Acid House (1998), Ecstasy (2011) and Filth (2013). Finally, all the pieces fell into place for T2.
“I thought, all the ingredients are there, we can’t fuck this up. But I was blown away by how good it was. It’s much, much stronger than the first film. He’s got all that energy of the first film but it’s also got much more depth. It’s a film student’s wet dream. There’s so much subtext to it, so much going on, they’ll be looking at it, talking about it and debating it for years.
I was blown away by how good it was. It’s much, much stronger than the first film
“The way it references the first film, we don’t make films of that scale, with that epic ambition in Britain any more. It feels like a European Godfather.”
Where Trainspotting was set in Edinburgh’s mid-1980s heroin culture, T2 finds Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy (Miller) and Spud (Bremner) older and greyer. The Cool Britannia hedonism and chaos that underpinned Trainspotting makes way for a theme we can all relate to: ageing.
“Trainspotting was fundamental to so many people’s culture growing up,” Welsh says. “When people see T2 they’ll think about what they were doing when they saw the first movie, how their lives have gone. They will identify with the characters as they are also engaged in that quest.
“We’ve lived in such a narcissistic, individualistic culture for 30 years. I don’t think that people get old in the same way now. We rebel and fight against it. You go to a rave these days and there’s three generations of the one family jumping around. But we do age. There’s a reality of the looming mortality.
“We’re also doing this within a disintegrating society, a society that’s falling apart, that can’t afford to pay people wages. It’s facing up to these big existential crises. It’s such an interesting and vibrant place for all of this to play out. It’s very hard to say that one movie can capture all of this. But it does. And it captures it all on an incredible emotional level.”
Welsh had first-hand experience of the poverty and drug addiction that his novels depict. Today, his life is unrecognisable from those days. He lives in Chicago with his wife Beth Quinn, spending time between the Windy City and Miami, with the odd trip back to Edinburgh.
They’ve probably elected the very last guy you want to be president, particularly in this day and age
Politically motivated throughout his career — he has spoken candidly about the deterioration of his once treasured Labour Party and was strongly in favour of Scottish independence in 2014 — Welsh keeps a close eye on politics. He acknowledges that living overseas offers a different viewpoint to the circus back home. “You see the good things, and you see the lunacies,” he notes. “Everything is up in the air. We’re aware that we’re transitioning but we’ve no idea what kind of society we’re transitioning towards. We listen too much to opportunistic loudmouths who don’t have a fucking clue but because they make most noise we fall in line with them.”
On the topic of opportunistic loudmouths, I point out that T2 will hold its premiere in his birthplace two days after Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of Welsh’s adopted homeland. “It’s strange,” he sighs. “If there’s one guy who was never equipped to be president, it was him. They’ve probably elected the very last guy you want to be president, particularly in this day and age. From the point of view of people living here, it’s going to get quite horrible for some but from my own point of view as a writer and artist, you want as many pricks — and the biggest fucking pricks — in power to kick against. Brexit and Trump is a cloud but it’s a silver lining if you’re an artist. It becomes more interesting and galvanising, and for me it’s going to be fascinating.
“These things never exist in a vacuum. I can see a lot of resistance and opposition to Trump. I can see Trump falling out with the Republican Party and all sorts of weird stuff going on,” he adds. “It’s definitely not going to be dull.”
T2 Trainspotting is out now